What story are you telling yourself, your colleagues, your clients about? Stories are the only way we can constructively create a context for to understand what might be ahead.

The future is fiction. What story are you telling yourself, your colleagues, your clients about it? Writing stories is easy for some; for others a painful exercise only to be undertaken when everything else has failed. No matter which end of the scale one tends towards, these stories are the only way that we can constructively create a context for to understand what might be ahead. It is context interpretation that is actually one of the key skill sets for every good designer.

The ancient Romans created a fiction, a future of the permanence of the Roman Empire. A few of their designers wholly embraced this fiction, and built as such. But what do you think these ancient Roman’s would say of the dizzying traffic weaving around the Coliseum? How would their Legions fare attempting to cross an eight-lane superhighway? Would the coliseum still be standing if they always chose the lowest bidder? The Ancient Romans were building a legacy, however, and many knew it. They built utilizing their materials in the most efficient way possible using their common labor force with their skill sets. Now in this fiction, what do you think will be left of our society in a thousand years? Could anything you are designing survive?

It seems we have forgotten a lot when it comes to how we value our resources. I believe that we need to put our built environment on a resource diet. The excesses are manifest everywhere and are fundamentally unsustainable, much more so in some parts of the world than others. Perhaps it is the destiny during every global empire shift that resource utilization and allocation re-evaluations occur. History is replete with examples of civilizations overstretching their supply chains and subsequently, inevitably experiencing a snap. This is as true for nations as it is for cities. We, the professionals who create the foundations for people to not just survive, but to thrive, have both the opportunity and responsibility to review, and revise this situation, to erect the next coliseum and imagine the unforeseeable.

Effective foresighting engages every skill that an architect should have when examining a new building site. It is a combination of the analytical and the intuitive. One needs to take the time to look at the facts, as much as one can find them, and the facts behind the facts until one really is confident of the data that one is looking at. For example, if we look at demographic trends, we can see that there is a general aging of the world’s population. But this is not the case everywhere. Some countries’ populations are getting younger, as are the populations of some of the major cities in nations generally trending toward aging. You always need to ask “why” at least five times to challenge the answer to a question. This asking can lead to really interesting insights that can then be interpolated.

Another demographic example which is worth consideration is the fact that half of the world’s population will soon live in two countries. One of these countries however, China, will experience a decline in population in about twenty years, when the one-child policy has truly taken hold. This will coincide with the end of extended families; there will no longer be any brothers or sisters who in turn become uncles or aunts who in turn bear cousins. Interesting implications for a nation in which family relationships have dictated so much for thousands of years, a nation in which 40 million men will never be able to find brides. So, in thinking about this, we might also think about how one third of all households in Europe are now single-person households. How might this impact the needs of a society? What will the impacts be on the shape of the built environment? On the density of our urbanized worlds? On its transportation needs? How will “singles” hope to age? Who will take care of us when the health care systems collapse? Will our spaces evolve into places with personalities that extend beyond the furnishings? Perhaps our homes will have to help to take care of us because there simply aren’t enough young people around to do so. But if this is the case, then what will the ecological footprint be of our newly “intelligent/helpful” homes be? It is pretty appalling already without the added silicon implants.

We need constantly to challenge ourselves to ensure that we are using our limited resources wisely. It is now recognized that we are in a resource-constrained world. Simply consider that over one third of the world’s population was born in the last fifty years. There are limits to our growth not determined by economics, buy simply by access to energy. There has been some recent work published which shows this relationship in painful clarity. And, if one stops to think about it, it really does make sense. Thus, we all must become better at ensuring that we are utilizing our energy resources wisely. Make sure that every Watt counts!

The future is fiction. We always make sure that we are not just telling one story in our foresight work. We try to rationally analyze the issues that are driving change in an area. We find, when we do this that some concepts rise to the top, like cream in a bottle of fresh milk. These Drivers then undergo strict scrutiny until we feel that we have a pretty good handle on their STEEP domains of influence [Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political] and we prioritize them. The most important become axes which we push to extremes. For example, for our Future of Airport Retailing work we chose volume of passengers and individual identity as the two most significant drivers. Another example would be for our Future of Commercial Offices work we chose urban vs. suburban and new build vs. reuse.

In each case, we create four stories about the world which we can envision possibly occupying each quadrant. Then, we do what architects should do best, and focus on the people who will be experiencing space in each quadrant. We take a look at their anticipated needs and desires through a process we call LifeMapping. These maps attempt to take a look at a person’s day, from beginning to end, and unfold it so that the experience can be anticipated and analyzed. How is it the same? How will it change? How will technology influence these needs? How will resource constraint impact the desires? We follow on this kind of inquiry until we feel that the story tells itself.

This is essentially what each of us has gone through or goes through in a good studio environment. We work hard to understand what the context is, what the experience should be, and then use our broad skill sets to create what should be the best opportunity possible to optimize all of the parameters. We are challenged by a context in which we cannot often utilize our skill sets to their full extent.

Perhaps, after 2012, when even Exxon can no longer deny Peak oil, we’ll be in a better position. Or perhaps we will be like the phalanx of a Roma legion, standing before the ruins of a mighty civilization, attempting to make sense of possibilities we never could have imagined. The best we can do, free of a perfect plan for seeing the future, is to examine the many examples of fantastic as well as the founded. But above all we should endeavor to learn from history as we examine the future and be sure we learn our lessons well.